Soil moisture is a significant state variable in flood forecasting. Nowadays more and more satellite soil moisture products are available, yet their usage in the operational hydrology is still limited. This is because the soil moisture state variables in most operational hydrological models (mostly conceptual models) are over-simplified—resulting in poor compatibility with the satellite soil moisture observations. A case study is provided to discuss this in more detail, with the adoption of the XAJ model and the Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) level-3 soil moisture observation to illustrate the relevant issues. It is found that there are three distinct deficiencies existed in the XAJ model that could cause the mismatch issues with the SMOS soil moisture observation: (i) it is based on runoff generation via the field capacity excess mechanism (interestingly, such a runoff mechanism is called the saturation excess in XAJ while in fact it is clearly a misnomer); (ii) evaporation occurs at the potential rate in its upper soil layer until the water storage in the upper layer is exhausted, and then the evapotranspiration process from the lower layers will commence – leading to an abrupt soil water depletion in the upper soil layer; (iii) it uses the multi-bucket concept at each soil layer – hence the model has varied soil layers. Therefore, it is a huge challenge to make an operational hydrological model compatible with the satellite soil moisture data. The paper argues that this is possible and some new ideas have been explored and discussed. Copyright © 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.